Full Throttle

Jes Gordon found her design kindred spirit in Janet.

Is playing it safe in terms of design the way to beat out the competition? Does comfort rule over originality?

I have to preface this blog by saying that hands-down Janet Kim was my favorite chef on this season of Rocco’s Dinner Party. I think she might have read my book, Party Like a Rock Star!

You may be surprised that I am saying this, but Janet was the only chef that inspired me as a designer to go full throttle into her room without any fear or restrictions. She also mixed the inspiration of music with her design, instead of being so incredibly literal, like many of the chefs have been so far, in terms of props and measurements. She was also not food-oriented in terms of her design at all, which was certainly a pleasant change for me. Janet and I didn’t even discuss her dining table much in our consultation, or her food really. She was more intrigued by the entire room experience, which to me, makes up a true environmental design.  

As I sat next to this chill lady, I didn’t expect her to pull out terms like punk rock, Sid Vicious, Vivienne Westwood (one of my favorite fashion designers), and awesome distressed tartan plaid curtains!I was so happy I almost fell off of my seat, no joke! So far it has been a season of chefs describing yet again a long table, measured flower arrangement,s and really literal props concerning their designs…. I talk about keeping it fun and not so literal in my book. Have some fun, people.

I love that Janet took the original gastro-pub concept, which was derived from the original pubs in England that served up “pub grub" of high quality with a casual and celebratory atmosphere, into another era of England, which celebrated the huge movement of punk rock, and the high fashion that was born out of it. To me, this was unexpected, but completely genuine and absolutely held just as much merit as the more literal gastro-pub atmosphere that Kevin wanted for his dining room.   

Rocco often mentioned that Janet’s intellect got in the way of her cooking; it was exactly the opposite in terms of her design! Janet’s ambition and love for several components going on at once were essential to allowing me to create a room that folks would talk about long after the dinner party was over.    

Was Janet’s room really any less comfortable because her design was more controversial? Did her room express an individual’s taste in décor and atmosphere that differs from anyone else? You bet it did. I speak of this in my book -- you have to make it personal, and express yourself. It is not only about the food!

Its rare that after 25 years of designing and managing full experiential atmospheres that I haven’t “been there, done that” in some form or another, but Janet’s room was not a repeat performance for me in any way. What a joy! 

Lets list out some of the awesome elements that made up Janet’s multicultural and dimensional ambiance:

One of the wow factors of Janet’s room was the “Dog Save the Queen” Union Jack on the wall.

The use of tartan plaid distressed curtains tied back with gold chains added fun texture to the room.

The black Louis “comfortable” chairs with the Vivienne Westwood style sashes were very tailored and handsome.

The country flowers and the use of hot pink mixed with black was really country and rock 'n' roll and punk!

I used a lucite tabletop that was painted with a wood grain pattern so the table looked antique, but was in fact made out of a very modern substance!

How about that huge dart board?? Lots of pubs have games like chess and darts, so I wanted to bring in a real “statement-making” dart board. 

Every pub needs a fireplace and, of course, a huge pig  (table by Moooi) somewhere in wells rain boots (it always rains in England)

Each person got a huge safety pin name tag at their seats to bring in some more punk glamour elements.

The lighting was hot pink with interesting touches of punk green. I normally would never light a room with any green tones simply because it makes people look sick, but using accents of the green really made Janet’s room distinctive. 

The chandelier was one of a kind, and there are no words that can even describe it. I think Christopher might have tried to steal it at the end of the night, but I can't prove it!


OK, well Kevin’s room was nothing to laugh at either. I adored Kevin, and his unpretentious approach to everything. What a lovely guy…. Kevin just wanted a big table with butcher paper and crayons and then he left the rest up to me which was awesome!!!

I thought the table was a little bare, so I brought in some sunflowers in copper pots and lots of candles. I love using amber glass so it creates a flame-like glow throughout the room. In my book, I speak a lot about how amber coloring makes everyone look like a rock star!

When I hang out in pubs I love reading, playing games, getting comfortable, and petting all of the dogs that are somehow allowed in these places!!

I covered some of Rocco’s formal dining room walls in copper tiles to really make the room look and feel authentic, and to continue that amber and moody glow. I wanted the room to scream comfort, so I brought in some fabulous chesterfield sofas and ottomans and wing chairs complete with soft plaid blankets, and very soft doggy beds to match!! Also by adding that old English alleyway type of lighting, a ton of gorgeous stained glass sconces and overhead lights and reading lamps completed the ambiance.

Ken Oringer said that no gastro-pub is complete without a cock, so there you go!! Cat Deeley felt like she was home, which definitely brought a smile to my face big time. This is what makes me tick often in my career, is when folks walk into a room and the “ahhhh” stays throughout the evening as they discover special little elements throughout the environment, much like a treasure hunt for the eyes to enjoy.  

I installed an old-school armoire, and filled it with old trophies and beer mugs from all over the world and graced the walls with a ton of ship paintings that reminded me of a lot of the port area pubs that sailors would come and drink at before sailing off again. 

I wanted to express Kevin’s easy going and masculine attitude throughout the room, so I packed a lot in there!! There were chessboards and mountains of books, clocks and vintage food, and beer signs too. To me Kevin was a lot like a really laid back quarterback that had a great play in mind, and his focus was determined and genuine. I wanted his ambiance to mirror that for sure. To me, Kevin's room was a perfect balance between a man cave and gastro-pub!

The main focal point in the room was the huge chalkboard that expressed the menu items that Rocco’s guests were going to feast upon during the evening….

Was Kevin’s room more “digestible” than Janet’s? I would love to know your thoughts….

Congrats to the great talents Janet and Kevin!


Visit my website: www.jesgordon.com
Rock Star Blog: www.jesgordon-properfun.blogspot.com
Twitter: jesgordon
Check out Party Like A Rock Star on Amazon


What the Bleepity Bleep Was in that Maple Syrup?!

Rocco DiSpirito explains the importance of love in cooking.


It wasn’t Valentine’s Day, but last night certainly felt like it. I am still trying to cool off. Ah,  if every day could be Valentine’s Day …

I welcomed to my kitchen three chefs with completely different backgrounds; hell, one wasn’t even an earning chef, but someone who just loves to cook (we should all be like her!) Let me introduce the trio:

Vicki Ferentino  is the owner of Soulfully Good Catering in New York City. She’s a self-taught chef/caterer who does a lot of huge, up-to-600-guest parties. She had to start cooking at age nine because her parents didn’t cook. That tells me she’s a real survivor. Her signature dish was a Buttermilk Fried Chicken Salad with Maple and Mayonnaise Dressing that I found intriguing. I mean, who combines maple syrup and mayonnaise? I like my maple syrup on buttermilk pancakes, not in my mayonnaise. (Plus, it was a visual disaster… if something looks that bad, you don’t want to taste it, but I had to, or it wouldn’t be fair to cast it out on looks alone. OK, that goes for life too: you can’t judge a book by its cover.) And to prove the truth of that well-worn cliché, Vicki’s dish was over-the-top delicious.

My second chef was Chris Thompson, Executive Chef who has worked in fine dining for more than 10 years in Minnesota. He currently hangs his chef’s hat at Smack Shack and has apprenticed under a lot of award-winning chefs. Chris is a “chef of the people.” He does the whole food truck thing where he sticks his head out the window and cooks great stuff at food fairs. 

But not dishes like the fois gras he was cooking for me. I got a whiff of it. Jeez, I concluded it had been around for a long time. It didn’t make me feel better when he said it had to be in a suitcase to get here. I wasn’t feeling very hungry after hearing that remark. Well, his full dish was pancake with fois gras, quail eggs, Serrano ham, and blueberry gastrique. It was a very indulgent and gorgeous-looking, but certainly not a breakfast you’d get at the local pancake shop, that’s for sure. But if you can get this in your town, let me know. OK, I ran my finger over the squiggle of gastrique and licked it. I said  “wow,” but what I really meant was “yuck.” It wasn’t balanced well against the strong flavors of the fois gras and eggs. On second thought, if your local pancake restaurant serves this dish, don’t call me.

Here is the most interesting entry in our signature challenge: Yuki Tsutsui, an investor relations professional with Avenue Capital. She’s a financier who loves to cook! I was freakin’ blown away by her willingness to come to the loft to compete. I am a huge believer in all of us learning to cook at home more often. I don’t care if you heat up tea in a microwave or slap together a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, you can cook. Hell, don’t get me started, but I think it’s healthier to cook at home, more satisfying, and definitely more economical -- and that’s coming from someone who has been a partner and executive chef in several restaurants. OK, let me jump off my soapbox with a thud, and say Yuki did something very creative and original. In fact, I’ve never seen such a feat before. Her signature dish not only told me how she cooks, it also told me so much about her heritage. She is Japanese with a Venezuelan background, so she prepared a fish taco called a JapaZuelan fish taco. It defined her persona from so many different points of view. BUT, yes there is always a “but”... the flavors of the fish (cod) didn’t combine well with the tomatillo sauce. Yuki flunked Sandwich 101, and she was eliminated. My final advice to her was: Hey, if you love cooking this much, get some formal training. If she takes my advice, I think we’ll see her in the next generation of celebrity chefs.Vicki won the Signature Dish Challenge. She won on taste, but I’ll tell you this: she also won on a fundamental, deep-down-in-your-heart reason: she cooks with love. It’s something you can’t taste, but it’s something you can feel. I don’t care if someone makes you a bowl of oatmeal or a five-course dinner, if they do it because they love you, you can feel it in your core and you never forget it. It is the most important ingredient when you cook for people you care about. 

Well, now that I’ve brought up the “love” thing, I should remind everyone that our theme was Perfect Pairings. I invited three couples to dinner. One couple was celebrating their 10th wedding anniversary (please, do I hear a collective Awww???) Another couple has been together 16 years, and the third couple just got engaged.

So I asked Vicki and Chris to create duets of food: two dishes that are delicious on their own, but when served together create a meal greater than the sum of the two parts. There would be three courses in all. So if I’ve done my math right, they’d have to prepare six different dishes for my guests.

Vicki chose the formal dining room. She made the room sexy and fun with flowers and candles. There were directions to a kissing booth. Formal definitions of love were on the wall. There was a bed with comfy pillows. The whole vibe was giving me ideas.  

Chris chose the terrace room for his dining experience. It had an outdoor picnic feel to it. He wanted it to conjure up an outdoor country wedding, but my party planner Jes Gordon felt that might make some guests feel uncomfortable, and I agree. Give me a kissing booth any day -- but I would let my guests be the ultimate judges.

And speaking of my guests, let me introduce them:

Jonathan Adler, Potter and Designer – and of course, the brainchild behind Jonathan Adler Design. He is an inspiration -- someone who got fired and turned down so many times before one brave company believed in him, and the rest is history.  Jonathan is an icon! He was joined by his life partner of 16 years, the witty and wonderful Simon Doonan. Simon is the Creative Ambassador for Barneys in New York City. Let me make this suggestion: If you have a Simon in your life, please invite him to your next dinner party. He and Jonathan were so delightful.  

And the just-engaged Hristo Zisoviski, the brilliant Sommelier, and his beautiful fiancee Tia Keenan, the Chief Fromager at the Make Room. Can you imagine the romantic evenings these two have… sharing wine and cheese, their passions?

Finally, our amazing couple Jason Jones and Samantha Bee, correspondents for The Daily Show, who are celebrating their 10th anniversary. They have three beautiful children. This is a couple who work together, play together, do it all together. What an inspiration.The love in the room just gave me such pause. As I watched each couple and immersed myself in their connection, I saw how when you love someone more than you need them, you truly make each other’s lives richer. 

Got to get out of that reverie and continue this blog. Vicki served first with a Carrot Ginger Soup and Coconut Shrimp. At this point I should mention a few things:

Tia doesn’t eat shrimp or lobster.

Simon doesn’t eat meat.

Samantha and Jason wanted to have something Cuban to celebrate a great time they had in Cuba during their romance.

So I threw down the gauntlet to Vicki and Chris: Accommodate these requests!

Vicki came through on the first course; she fixed Tia this amazing fried cheese piece of delight in lieu of the shrimp. But I think she cut the grilled cheese sandwich on the same cutting board she used for the shrimp… hope the swelling goes down soon, Tia.

Next up was her Garlic Herbed rubbed Lamb Chops with Roasted Vegetable Risotto. Not a big hit. The lamb was overcooked. She took all the fat off it. Bad choices, all the way around. The worst thing you can do is under dress and overcook lamb. 

For dessert, she served what she thought were pumpkin doughnuts with vanilla bean custard. She waited too long to make the custard, so what we got was a dipping sauce for the doughnuts, which were really beignets or zeppoles or donut holes or maybe fried dough? OK, I won’t split hairs. Doughnuts are fried dough. My mom let me fry dough when I was a kid and sprinkle it in sugar or honey, and I loved it. Fried dough rocks!

Oh, I should add that Vicki made a Cuban sandwich to commemorate Sam and Jason’s anniversary. It was spectacular, with a side of plantains. Hey, of course, I have plantains in my fridge, doesn’t everyone? 

Now, here’s where Vicki started racking up the points: She gave each guest a gift of jam with scones, beautifully boxed. My guests started tasting all of it immediately. When Simon said the jam was orgasmic, I thought I would have to postpone the second dinner party until the next nightWell, fortunately I broke the sexual tension in the air and got everyone to move to Chris’ dinner party in my Terrace Room. He started us off with Tuna Poke and Lobster Salad, but I felt like we had been waiting 10 years for our first course. Chris was completely off on his timing. The worst thing was he served shellfish to someone who is allergic to it. That is scary, folks. Don’t ever do that, unless you want ambulance personnel interrupting your dinner party. I already knew where this was headed. And it didn’t help that one of my guests pronounced Chris as someone who cooks like the “lunch chef.”  In my business, it’s the 3rd or 4th string that gets lunch duty. Ouch.

Chris is a real expert at plating… he loves to design plates… made me nostalgic… because when I was a young chef… excuse me, I am still a “young” chef, that was something I was known for, so I appreciate his plate artistry.

After Chris served his fennel braised short ribs, the most bizarre thing happened and I don’t really know how to process it. Simon doesn’t eat meat, and Chris didn’t make a substitute dish (major faux pas), yet Simon tried it and really loved it. This was the first time he had eaten red meat in 30 years. I think it says something about his impeccable manners, that he politely tried something and was so gracious about it. Yet at the same time I want my chefs to cater to my guests’ every desire and whim. Simon was such an amazing sport… God love him.

And Chris fixed a spectacular Cuban dish too. Roasted chicken and plantains… Yes, of course I am always well stocked with plantains. The dish was a triumph. I got to thinking over the past weeks -- it seems like the dishes I’ve asked these chefs to make on the fly have been their best. I wonder if we overthink food too much? Is spontaneity better, like it is in romance? I don’t know... bring me your comments on this!

Everyone loved Chris’s desserts, Pot de Creme and Crème Brulee

Over dinner, we had some provocative discussions about anniversaries over the course of relationships. Like: do you remember the first date… the first time you had sex… the first anniversary of your first date…. Blah, blah, blah… I will end the debate now: every day that you spend together, every moment, is an anniversary to be celebrated and cherished.

So… at the end of night, Vicki won… again she cooked with love, and love, well, that’s what life is all about.

But I still think she put something in that maple syrup ….